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Late in the Day


Late in the Day

Art in various forms is central to the lives of the characters in Tessa Hadley’s elegiac seventh novel, LATE IN THE DAY. It’s gratifying, then, that with a mastery equal to that of the most skilled portraitist, Hadley’s own artful literary brushstrokes bring to life a persuasive picture of longstanding marriages and friendships in profound crisis.

Set in contemporary London, the novel begins with the sudden death of Zachary Samuels, who collapses at his desk at the art gallery he owns. His shocking demise upsets the delicate balance in the lives of three survivors --- his widow Lydia, and their close friends Christine and Alex, gradually exposing tensions that simmered within each relationship and between the pairings.

At the beginning, this marital configuration was anything but foreordained, as Hadley reveals in an extended flashback --- one of several carefully revealing ones --- early in the novel. Lydia and Christine are grammar school friends, while Alex and Zachary likewise have known each other since boarding school. After she graduates from university, Lydia sets her eyes on Alex, her former French teacher --- a moody poet who emigrated from Czechoslovakia as a child --- though he's a few years older and married with a son. Christine and Zachary, in turn, carry on a not entirely Platonic relationship she never thinks of, despite its romantic aspects, as more than “happy companionship,” while Zachary longs for Lydia.

"Like fine wine, this is a novel to be sipped at, not gulped, but in doing so it's hard to resist the temptation to race ahead to find out what happens to these flawed but deeply sympathetic characters."

After Lydia abandons her quest for Alex (“I set my heart on what I couldn’t have, although I knew it was bad for me. Just because I knew it was bad for me.”), she and Zachary wed, followed not long thereafter by Christine and Alex, who discover their mutual attraction in the dying days of his unhappy marriage, an event she views through the lens of her “golden good fortune of being chosen.”

Now, 30 years on, Hadley meticulously captures the sense of life’s early glow fading away in the lives of these characters. Christine, who abandoned her studies for a PhD on the poet Christina Rossetti, in part at Zachary’s urging, has achieved modest success as an artist, but locks the door to her studio on the night of his death. Years after producing a single volume of poetry, Alex’s teaching career is on a downward trajectory, when he abandons his position as a primary school headmaster to teach nine-year-olds. Even before Zachary’s death, Lydia, a woman who is "often mistaken for someone famous," has been unable to carve out an identity for herself other than as his spouse, and now she struggles to confront a future that will be materially comfortable but emotionally barren.

Zachary --- a dynamic man whose family wealth allowed him to purchase an abandoned 18th-century chapel and convert it into a combination gallery and fashionable apartment for himself, Lydia and their daughter Grace, now an art student in Glasgow --- was the only one of the foursome who has come close to achieving a fully realized life. Christine thinks of him as “the one we couldn’t afford to lose,” but now he’s dead in middle age, leaving the other three to make their way without him and confront aspects of their own lives they’ve suppressed. "Their world was privileged even in its grieving," Christine reflects, "there wasn't any moral meaning to Zachary's death; it wasn't an injustice. And yet it undid them all."

With patience and subtlety, Hadley probes at all the most tender spots in the lives of these characters and invites the reader to ponder the fissure caused by Zachary's death, thrusting into sharp relief the way it both disrupts the complex relationship among the three survivors and alters their perspective on their own lives with the same dramatic effect as sawing off a leg from a firmly seated table. Looming over all of this is the intriguing but unanswerable question whether the lives of these characters would have turned out differently if the Lydia/Alex and Christine/Zachary pairings had come to pass.

Critics have justly praised Hadley's previous novels and short stories for her psychological acuity. Shifting unobtrusively among the points of view of multiple characters, here she gently, but non-judgmentally, reveals how intelligent people can make damaging choices, not so much heedless of the pain those choices will inflict on people they love, as seemingly powerless to avoid it. Hadley’s graceful prose perfectly complements the subdued mood of the story. Like fine wine, this is a novel to be sipped at, not gulped, but in doing so it's hard to resist the temptation to race ahead to find out what happens to these flawed but deeply sympathetic characters.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 25, 2019

Late in the Day
by Tessa Hadley

  • Publication Date: February 18, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 006247670X
  • ISBN-13: 9780062476708